Longing for the days of Kim Jong Il? Maybe it's time to transfer your affections to the delusional dictator of Equatorial Guinea.
On October 22, Fabián Nsue set out to do one of the things that lawyers often do: Pay a visit to one of his clients in prison.
His destination was no ordinary jail. It was Black Beach Prison, a place with a reputation so grim that it earned Nsue’s home country of Equatorial Guinea the nickname of "the Auschwitz of Africa" back in the 1970s. The warden of the prison at the time was Teodoro Obiang, who went on to become the country’s president. Today, after 33 years in power, he enjoys the status of the world’s longest serving head of state.
Nsue, who is Equatorial Guinea’s most prominent human rights lawyer, headed off to the prison that day at noon. But the officials at the prison didn’t bring him to the promised appointment. Instead Nsue found himself in a cell inside the jail, in solitary confinement. There was no bed, no bathroom, no access to a lawyer. Three days after his detention he was transferred to another prison, and then, on October 30, he was finally released — in the presence of the U.S. ambassador, who had lobbied for his freedom. (During their meeting, one of the Equatoguinean officials who was also present received a call on his mobile phone from Obiang himself, checking in to find out how the matter had been resolved — a striking example of the ruler’s penchant for micromanagement.) The embassy of Equatorial Guinea in the United States did not respond to a request for comment on Nsue’s status from FP.
Sadly, activists under Obiang are accustomed to such perverse twists of fate. For 33 years, Obiang has ruled this nation of 700,000 people by winning "elections" with more than 95 percent of the vote. Although he promised his people democracy in 1991, he continues to control all media outlets and uses torture, extrajudicial imprisonment, and censorship to prevent opposition leaders from mounting campaigns against him.
Obiang — shown on the left in the photo above during a meeting earlier this year with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni — honed these prodigious skills in torture and imprisonment as a young man, during the 11-year reign of his uncle, Francisco Macias Nguema, in the 1970s. Macias’ bloody rule forced a third of the country’s population to flee, and he slaughtered many of those who remained. During this period Obiang refined his skills at Black Beach, where thousands of members of the opposition were tortured and summarily executed, before he ultimately overthrew his uncle in a coup and seized power for himself in 1979.
Despite the mountain of facts meticulously gathered from independent non-government organizations and observers in Equatorial Guinea itself, President Obiang continues to insist that "there is no persecution whatsoever of political leaders." He then goes on to say that "there is no prohibition whatsoever on any press." If these statements are added to earlier assertions by the government that there is "no misery or poverty" present in the country either, oil-rich Equatorial Guinea sounds like a magical utopia where everyone is free and no one ever goes hungry. On the face of things, indeed, Equatorial Guinea has a GDP per capita of $35,000, comparable to that of Great Britain. Other facts, however, tell the true story of life in this small African nation.
In reality, two-thirds of Equatorial Guinea’s population lives on less than a $1 a day, one out of every five children dies before his or her fifth birthday, and the country is ranked as the fifth most censored in the world, just above North Korea, the most notorious closed society. It is apparent that President Obiang never leaves the Potemkin-like community of Sipopo, a city of pristine mansions, 18-hole golf courses, and five-star resorts, and where, ironically, ordinary Equatoguineans are not allowed to tread. Obiang considers himself so far above the common citizens that a government minister once referred to him as a "god" on state-sponsored radio.
Obiang has also been trying to convince the rest of the world that his delusional dream is a reality. He has paid thousands of dollars to PR firms to whitewash his image and convince outsiders that he is a benevolent, democratizing leader. (Asked for a response, Greg Lagana of Qorvis, one of the firms that handles Equatorial Guinea’s account in the U.S., says that the Obiang government has "never asked us to do propaganda, never asked us to say anything untrue," and says that the "critics do not have a right to own the image of the country.") Obiang has even gone so far as to make donations to a U.S. charity, the Sullivan Foundation, and to use their African summit as an event to showcase the progress and "development" of Equatorial Guinea. (In response to my organization’s efforts to publicize their receipt of funds from the Equatoguinean leader, the Sullivan Foundation issued a letter denouncing "so-called ‘human rights organizations’" and insisting "that President Obiang has modernized his country and has implemented major political reforms.")
Nsue’s back story vividly illustrates the harsh realities of life under Obiang. Nsue is a member of the only legal opposition party, Unión Popular (UP). He defended Weja Chicambo, a former prisoner of conscience and the founder of an "illegal" opposition party. Nsue also served as defense lawyer for four members of UP accused of orchestrating an attack on the presidential palace in 2009 — even though the four men were in exile in Benin when the attack occurred. They were later tracked down, brought back to Equatorial Guinea, tortured, and executed. Nsue himself was imprisoned at Black Beach and tortured in 2002. (During his more recent stint in the prison last week, Nsue was merely threatened with abuse.)
Nsue had been trying to visit his client, Augustín Esono, since October 16. On October 22, Liborio Mba, a police superintendent (who has been implicated in other disappearances), gave Nsue permission to meet with Esono. Esono has been accused by state media of having "ties" to the anti-corruption organization Transparency International. Officially, Esono is accused of changing euros into the local currency for a French citizen that the government claims is an aide to Daniel Lebègue, Transparency International’s France Director. Transparency International is actively investigating corruption charges against the president’s son, Teodorin Obiang. Recently, the French government seized Teodorin’s Paris mansion, valued at over 150 million dollars, along with 11 luxury cars. In response, Obiang appointed his son to the previously nonexistent government position of second vice-president in a clear bid to grant him diplomatic immunity. Teodorin is currently wanted by French authorities on money-laundering charges. Esono’s arrest, despite no crime, is obviously in retaliation. (Nsue says that he did see Esono briefly during his stay in Black Beach, and that Esono showed him marks indicating that he had been tortured during his confinement. Despite Nsue’s release, however, Esono remains in detention.)
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Obiang’s government has now issued an arrest warrant for Lebègue, the Transparency International director, accusing him of "defamation and libel against personalities and institutions of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea." Obiang sent his disinformation machine into overdrive, issuing statements that Lebègue was engaged in "mafia-style business activities." And so the leader of Equatorial Guinea accuses his accusers of the same misdeeds he’s alleged to have committed himself. To add to the farce, he has now asked Interpol to process a "red alert" warrant for Lebègue’s arrest. Interpol has come under fire recently for allowing dictators to use the international police organization to return fleeing dissidents.
The money-laundering charges are just the tip of the iceberg for this extravagant family. The Obiang clan has amassed an enormous fortune, observers say, by siphoning off the profits of the country’s oil fields. They’ve used the profits to purchase mansions, luxury sports cars, private jets, and yachts in at least three continents.
This largess has enabled Obiang to go a long way toward imposing his own version of reality on the world. His recent interview with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour demonstrated his delusional talents. When Amanpour asked whether he might appoint his son to succeed him in the presidency, Obiang responded: "It is not me. It’s the people. The people decide." He insisted again that Equatorial Guinea is "not a monarchy, it is a republic."
When Amanpour suggested that the massive oil wealth be used to help lift the majority of the nation’s population out of poverty, Obiang replied, "We cannot use money from the natural resources as a Christmas gift to the people." To Equatoguineans, this answer must sound like cruel mockery from a man who is known to lavish extravagant presents on his friends and family while withholding basic services from his own people.
In a moment that truly captures the parallel reality where Obiang resides, he denied having any knowledge of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But, of course, in Obiang’s utopia, dissidents do not exist. So why would he be aware of one of the most famous political dissidents of the twentieth century?
President Obiang continues to inhabit his own parallel world, in a prosperous Equatorial Guinea where there is freedom of the press, freedom of speech, a functioning electoral system, and a transparent government. This delusion is a far cry from reality. Although he insisted to Amanpour that he could "never present [himself] as God," perhaps he really does see himself as divine.
Somehow I doubt very much that Esono, Nsue, or their supporters will ever be persuaded to see him that way.